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Fat has been demonized throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Then in the 90s and 2000s, we learned that it was carbs that make you overweight. Come back, fat, all is forgiven... Which of these nutrients is really to blame for weight gain?

For years, we were all told that eating whole grains was the way forward. Our benighted ancestors may have opened the day with a fry-up, or gone to work on an egg, but our arteries would be kept cholesterol free by a space-age regime of bran and jogging. 

Now the conventional wisdom has changed, and we know that jogging is a great way to ruin your knees, your endocrine system and your cardiovascular system at the same time, and that some of the fats dismissed as deadly cholesterol actually dissolve the fats that clog arteries.  Meanwhile a high-carbohydrate diet is associated with dental caries and diabetes. 

So when you’re planning a diet, whether that’s simply to stay healthy or whether you have a preexisting condition you want to work with, or you’re trying to lose weight, which should you avoid: Fat or carbs?

Duke Ellington once said there were only two kinds of music: good music and bad music.  He wouldn't choose between blues and jazz, just between good and bad. And the carbs/fat choice is the same. It’s not fat that makes you fat, and it’s not carbs either. But eating both together as part of a crummy diet? Now that will mess you up, because the sugars trigger an insulin spike and the fat is deposited in adipose tissue.

What makes you fat is the wrong kind of fat and the wrong kind of carbs.

Carbs are a short to medium term energy source. 

You can absorb short chain carbs through the membranes in your cheeks directly into your bloodstream; you don’t even need to swallow them. 

Fat isn't even digested until it reaches the small intestine, three to six hours after you eat it. When it is digested, it enters the bloodstream slowly. And it’s the least thermogenic and most energy dense of all the micronutrients. Thermogenesis is a measure of heat-making – how much heat is created in the process of digestion. Protein is the most thermogenic, but its effects are felt more slowly.  Carbohydrates loiter somewhere in the middle. 

Fat is a great fuel, and the fat you eat doesn't somehow turn to the fat on your body – unless you eat way too much of it.

The wrong kinds of fats are basically added fats. 

Trans fats, hydrogenated fats and fats from an animal’s abdominal cavity that have been added to a food product will damage your general health and are more likely to be laid down as fats. And they come as a double whammy because they’re so often found in the same foods as short-chain carbohydrates. 

When you eat short-chain carbohydrates, your liver responds to a sudden spike of blood sugar by dumping insulin into your bloodstream. Excess sugar is pulled out of your bloodstream and dumped in the liver, and in the muscles if they are giving off chemical signals that they need to have their glycogen reserves restocked. The rest? Either it stays in the bloodstream or it gets reconverted and laid down as fat.

While that’s going on the fat you ate hasn't even hit your bloodstream yet. So how come sugary foods make fat laydown worse?

Insulin Spikes Make You Lay Down Fat

Because the sugar may spike almost immediately – but the insulin is still working, four to six hours later, as fat enters the bloodstream in large quantities.  That’s when your high insulin levels make the fat get caught up by adipose cells and layed down. 

Fat doesn't make you fat.  Carbs don’t make you fat.

Insulin makes you fat. 

It also makes you muscular; it may be the most anabolic hormone in the human body.  Insulin isn't the enemy; it’s just one of the rules of the game. We have to figure out how to game it in order to achieve our goals.

Trying to figure out the right mix of macronutrients is a difficult matter. We’re used to having certain food groups demonized and others lauded to the skies, and it’s hard to rid ourselves of that way of thinking and see a more balanced picture.

Typically, the amount of calories you get from your food will be measured in terms of percentages. A diet where you eat protein, carbs and fats as 30-30-40 will see you getting 30% of your energy from protein, 30% from carbs and 40% from fats.

That doesn’t mean your diet consists of 40% fat by weight! Figuring this out means knowing the amount of calories you need, juggling the macronutrients and taking account of thermogenic effects and of your requirements – are you trying to lose fat? Gain muscle? Both? Even in the hands of highly qualified experts this sifting of interrelated factors is not an exact science, and even if it was, the resulting diet, where everything had to be weighed to the gram and timed to the minute, would be so restrictive that almost no-one would follow it.

If you eat a good mix of protein, fat and carbs, you’re unlikely to go far wrong. For most of us, though, that means eating way more protein than we’re used to and significantly less carbohydrates, and it also means eating more food.

Think in terms of foods rather than nutrients and this mess becomes easier to disentangle. 

Try to eat foods that contain a wide range of fats that are naturally present in the food, and eat your carbs long chain and accompanied by fiber, protein – or preferably both.

When I say fats that are naturally present in the food, I’m talking about the fat on a piece of bacon or a beefsteak, or the fat in nuts (nuts are usually about half fat). By comparison, the fats that you’ll find in processed foods are often there to give that food a certain appearance or texture. You’re actually eating packaging when you eat them, in that sense. And trans and hydrogenated fats and dense quantities of animal intra-abdominal fats aren't that good for your weight loss goals.

Figure out your caloric needs and then make sure you’re getting them.  If you’re finding you’re hungry between meals, try eating more fat, more protein and more fiber (that’s why Atkins worked so well) to slow down the absorption of the nutrients you eat.

This doesn't mean you have to be hungry the whole time. 

Imagine you ate half a pound of beef and a pound of potatoes for dinner. That’s a lot of food and a lot of nutrients. Everything there is good for you. You’re getting plenty of vitamin C, potassium, lots of protein and fat, plenty of various chain lengths of carbs – it’s hard to beat. But it’s not only clean calories: it’s hardly any calories. The meal I’ve just described would make most large men feel full all day. But it’s a thousand calories: A typical burger chain’s basic meal package tops that out, and without the nutritional benefits too. It also won’t make you feel full as long.

Try eating the bulk of your calories early in the day, like before noon, and eat the bulk of your carbs here too.

Prepare breakfast the night before so you only have to heat it, or get something mid-morning too (or both).  I know this goes against years of ‘no snacks!’ warnings, but if you crowd your calories together early in the day then you significantly reduce the amount of weight you gain.  So if you’re eating a slight caloric deficit you’ll lose weight much faster and feel fuller. The odd thing is, research shows you’ll feel fuller even at night if you eat the bulk of your calories in the morning.

If hunger is a problem try eating two or three teaspoons of flavorless oil –vegetable oil works fine – a couple of times a day.  This seems to ‘reset’ your metabolism, resulting in less adipose deposit; that’s right – it’s a fat supplement for weight loss!  Don’t flavor the oil, though; then it makes you gain weight.  

If you can’t stomach a tablespoon or two of olive oil, try sugary water.  It seems this has the same effect as long as it’s unflavored, and the body doesn't detect ‘sweet’ as a flavor in these circumstances.

So there you have it: Dodge short chain carbs. Dodge added fats. Eat real food, eat more in the morning and less in the afternoon, and you should be well on the way to your weight loss goals!

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